Updated: 10:25 a.m. Check back for updates.
If you’re driving back home on Tuesday after evacuating from Irma, prepare for a frustrating and long trip.
You’ll most likely have to sit in gridlock with lengthy delays — and be aware that an available gas station might be hard to come by.
Traffic jams had already formed by mid-morning throughout Florida and southern Georgia, as millions of evacuated residents flooded back into and through the state in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
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Drivers can expect pockets of congestion on several stretches of eastbound Interstate 10 through North Florida and southbound lanes of I-75, the Turnpike and I-95, as of 10 a.m.
Growing gridlock was reported especially at two major bottlenecks on southbound I-75 — the interchange with I-10 in Lake City, and the interchange in Wildwood in Central Florida, where Florida’s Turnpike merges with I-75.
By mid-morning, the I-10 interchange was jammed headed south on I-75 from south of the Georgia border and from the west on I-10 with eastbound traffic exiting onto I-75 South.
The Wildwood interchange is one of the most troublesome bottlenecks in the state even on a good day. Drivers were plagued with long delays there late last week as they fled north. Now it’s happening in reverse.
Heavy traffic conditions are likely to magnify as more people wake up and get on the road.
Many evacuees fled long distances from their homes — some even out of state to places like Georgia and Alabama. That means traffic jams are likely to surface on almost all major routes back southward, even in areas that usually aren’t congested. The state does not offer information on how long traffic delays might be, but you can prepare for a wait.
Southbound I-75 in Georgia was seeing delays out of Atlanta and Macon as Floridians headed back south. Georgia’s toll express lanes through Atlanta are operating southbound only “ until further notice to accommodate the return Florida traffic,” the Georgia Department of Transportation advised.
Toll fees on Georgia’s I-75 express lanes and throughout the state of Florida remain suspended.
Because of the crowds heading back south, expect worse-than-normal delays on I-75 through Lake City, Gainesville and Ocala — and particularly at the Wildwood interchange.
Other parts of southbound I-75, I-95 and the Turnpike will also be slow-moving as the day wears on.
Eastbound I-95 in downtown Miami was backed up in all three lanes at sunrise with residents seeking to return to Miami Beach when officials re-opened access at 8 a.m. There appeared to still be delays in that area and southward on U.S. 1 by mid-morning.
Despite the mass exodus back south, do not expect to use the shoulder as a travel lane, as drivers were allowed to do on parts of northbound I-75 and eastbound I-4 during the days of evacuations.
State officials say Florida’s roads are designed for heavy traffic during evacuations only on northbound lanes, not southbound. They say it would be unsafe to allow shoulder usage to expedite evacuees’ return.
Drivers are advised to check with their local communities and fl511.com — the state’s source for real-time traffic conditions — before getting on the road. Reports of road and bridge closures are also available online from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Flooding was still forcing roads to close in certain pockets of the state, as of late Monday and early Tuesday, but state officials said that no flooding was reported by mid-morning Tuesday on the interstates or the Turnpike. Those areas were cleared of debris by Monday evening.
U.S. 1 into the Keys remained closed to traffic because of the extent of the damage to the islands. But Monroe County said residents and business owners from the Upper Keys — including Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada — would be allowed to return starting early Tuesday.
The county said the Florida Department of Transportation had inspected all of the bridges along U.S. 1 and all of them are safe through Mile Marker 16. Crews will continue safety checks on the remaining bridges in coming days.
Road and bridge closures were also reported in St. Johns County in northeast Florida, which saw unprecedented flooding on Monday from Irma’s rains and storm surge.
Drivers should be prepared: Fuel will likely be hard to find.
There was a run on fuel before the storm, and there will be afterward — driven by the demands of evacuees returning, vast power outages statewide forcing the use of gas-powered generators and drivers desiring to keep their tanks full during the shortage.
Check GasBuddy, which offers a tracker on which gas stations have fuel.
According to the state’s Turnpike website, the Turkey Point, Canoe Creek, Fort Pierce, Snapper Creek and Pompano Beach service plazas have gas. Canoe Creek and Pompano Beach don’t have diesel fuel yet. Social media reports that the West Palm Beach service plaza also has gas.
Scott has reiterated the state is working to get fuel transported from ports in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. Tankers would continue to get escorts by the Florida Highway Patrol, he said.
All of Florida’s seaports, except for Port Pensacola, remained closed — including Port Everglades and Port Tampa Bay, according to information presented at a Monday evening briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center.
Port Everglades and Port Tampa Bay are the state’s main sources for fuel distribution, but Scott has said there was fuel in port prior to the storm, which is now being unloaded and delivered to gas stations around the state.
“We are working around the clock to resupply fuel to Florida,” he said in a tweet Monday evening.
State and local leaders were urging Florida residents not to drive home on Monday, because emergency response and transportation officials were still cleaning up debris, repairing downed power lines and checking the safety of roads and bridges.
“Don’t think just because this thing passed you can run home,” Gov. Rick Scott said at a Monday afternoon briefing in Opa-locka. “We’ve got downed power lines across the state. Roads that are impassable all over this state. We have debris all over this state.
“If you don’t need to be on the roads, don’t get out,” Scott urged residents.
However, residents were already taking to the roads by Monday afternoon and into the evening, as traffic jams surfaced on parts of westbound I-4 out of Orlando into Tampa and southbound on areas of I-75, I-95 and the Turnpike.
Check back for updates.
Clark reported from the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau. Herald staff writers David J. Neal and Carli Teproff contributed.